We all hate appraisals. Here’s how to make them better…

We’re just past the end of Q1 of 2023, so I’m guessing that most of you are, by now, past appraisal and salary review time. Would it be controversial to say that for IT leaders it’s one of the less loved times of the year? I’m not saying it’s unimportant; it’s an essential part of our job. But I am saying that it’s rarely enjoyed by those involved.

In my opinion, there are three reasons for this state of affairs:

  1. The process is often overly complex, long, and difficult to engage with.
  2. It tends to be an annual activity which makes it far more difficult and out of touch with reality as well.
  3. The output is generally consigned to the bottom of a drawer and forgotten as the daily grind takes over again.

For many participants—both appraisers and appraisees—engagement and perceived value are low. If everyone believes it’s ‘just another HR process we have to complete’, then it’s not doing the job it’s supposed to do.

Everyone knows what the worst appraisal looks like: an annual meeting shoehorned in between other meetings where neither party can remember what really happened and when, and it ends up as a bunch of platitudes, generalisations, and awkwardness.

The truth though is that it should be a critical and engaging activity that works for everyone. But the major effort needs to come from us rather than the employee. We need to make it a meaningful activity.

So, how do we avoid toe-curling appraisals?


First, for an appraisal to be any good at all, it really needs to be a monthly process, or at least quarterly. I also keep a log as the year progresses, recording specific points where my direct reports have done well, times when I’ve had to provide a helping hand, when I’ve spotted opportunities for growth, when they have gone through significant change or improvement, or when they’ve struggled to deliver. These notes help make any appraisal meeting specific.

No Surprises

It’s very important that nothing comes as a surprise during an appraisal, and more frequent one-to-ones avoid surprises. To some extent the appraisal should be a roll-up of all the one-to-ones over the course of the year with the opportunity to pick out specifics where needed. There’s thus no chance for banal generalisations. An appraisal should also output some actions—and don’t be surprised if they include actions for you!


In addition, the appraisal process should be simple. Any appraisal form that’s longer than one page is unfit for purpose. No-one likes filling in forms, let alone lengthy ones where they expected to write about their own performance. So, keep it simple and easy to use. It might well be backed up by notes, but the form itself should be short and sweet. If your HR department insist on something lengthy, then there’s a discussion to be had: if it’s not working for you, push back, because you can bet it’s not working for others in the business.

Now that the meeting is about facts, shared experiences, and a real opportunity to engage with someone’s performance, it becomes far more satisfying for everyone concerned. And if people know there won’t be any surprises, then it takes a lot of the stress out. In fact, if the one-to-ones have covered almost everything, the annual appraisal can concentrate on a few really important aspects that will drive performance throughout the coming year.

Finally, don’t allow the appraisal to just gather dust. Make it part of the regular one-to-ones, maybe not on every occasion, but at least once every few meetings. That way, there’s continued alignment with what was discussed, and when the next appraisal comes round, it all becomes a very easy, useful, and engaging opportunity—and dare I say it, maybe even an enjoyable experience.

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